There’s no danger of him being labelled a ‘Judas’ in these enlightened times, but Sam Beam – the man behind the Iron& Wine moniker – has certainly filled out his sound since he first arrived on the scene with the sparse, evocative folk of The Creek Drank The Cradle. 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog (his third) showcased a lusher, more varied approach that absorbed funk, blues and Afro-pop influences. Not everyone went for it, with some fans wishing for a return to the ‘authentic’ lo-fi vibe of his earlier material. Beam, however, expresses little doubt about his career trajectory. He recently referred to new album Kiss Each Other Clean as being to The Shepherd’s Dog what Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs was to Swordfishtrombones: refining and expanding on a sound that had started to blossom on the previous release.
Opening track ‘Walking Far From Home’ showcases the expansive, nuanced Americana that Iron & Wine deals in these days: it’s a widescreen, gospel-tinged arrangement, bolstered by electric organ and featuring poetic, almost mythical lyrics (“…Saw a car crash in the country/ Where the prayers are like weeds along the road/ I saw strangers stealing kisses/ Giving only their clothes, only their clothes”…). It’s followed by ‘Me And Lazarus’, a mellow, quietly funky number with a woozy bass line and sprightly sax lines. Tracks like ‘Monkeys Uptown’ and ‘Rabbit Will Run’, on the other hand, have a darker, more ominous tone musically: distorted electronic sound effects and atmospheric marimba are complemented by a more menacing timbre to Beam’s vocals.
For the most part though, there’s a loose, freewheeling feel to the album. Beam genuinely sounds like he’s having fun switching between styles, and the music has a consequently vibrant quality. ‘Half Moon’ is a jaunty back porch number with delicious doo-wop backing and warm, chiming guitar lines. ‘Godless Brother In Love’ is an almost spiritual-sounding ballad, the singer backed by piano, delicately plucked guitar and backing harmonies from Thomas Bartlett. ‘Glad Man Singing’, meanwhile, has a gently buoyant swing to it, with uplifting, soulful vocals. Overall, the glue that holds it all together is Beam’s formidable voice: the more eclectic nature of Iron & Wine’s music over time has really brought out its true expressiveness, arguably in a way that those early whispered excursions never could. Hooray for evolution.